U.S. blames Iran for tanker attacks

(Reuters) U.S. deploys more troops to Middle East, blames Iran for tanker attacks. Quoting,

[Rear Admiral Gilday] “The attack against the shipping in Fujairah, we attribute it to the IRGC,” Gilday said, explaining that the Pentagon attributed limpet mines used in the attack directly to the IRGC.

This was foreshadowed on 5/13, in Iran Fires the First Shot in New Tanker War. Quoting,

For a possible solution, we must reach back to the U.S. Civil War, when the modern self-propelled “torpedo” did not yet exist. The spar torpedo was an explosive charge on the end of a stick.  It was rammed into the target ship, and exploded not instantly, but shortly after the attackers got away. Just before World War II, the Brits invented the limpet mine, which holds fast to the target with a magnet.

These are examples of weapons which leave behind little in the form of traceable scrap metal. Both are historically associated with midget (or littoral) submarines such as the Ghadir.

The hypothesis of execution directly by the IRGC  was initially contradicted  by the “proxy hypothesis”, while the limpets were challenged (5/18, Insurer says Iran’s Guards likely to have organized tanker attacks) by underwater drones.

Underwater drones  had/has the attraction of support from forensic analysis, which may have been faulty. The proxy hypothesis seemed weak. Where would they shove off from? Quoting,

The nearest port, Al Mukalia, is 2160 miles, but it’s under UAE control….The Houthis don’t need a port to mount the attacks. They could have shoved off from a beach, and slowly motored their way 1600 miles. But the choice to label the IRGC as the enabler, as opposed to the attacker, appears to be an unsupported complication.

If the proxies were based in Iran, armed with Iranian weapons, and guided by Iranian radar, are they proxies in any sense of the word? How would their nationality be known, by other than HUMINT, which can be very unreliable?

Now we’re back to limpets, while the proxy hypothesis appears to be fading a little. Further forensic examination may not have supported the drone hypothesis, which requires more foreign debris than limpets. Execution by proxies may have been challenged  by additional intelligence that cannot be revealed.

While Occam’s Razor is never a fact, it fosters reexamination of complexities. Sometimes a simplification pops out of the jumble.

On the other hand, this could be Groundhog Day.

(Reuters) Ex-U.S. marine held in Russia on spying charge says he’s being threatened: TASS

(Reuters) Ex-U.S. marine held in Russia on spying charge says he’s being threatened: TASS. That’s (ABC) Paul Whelan‘s statement to the court.

Why would TASS, which is owned by the government of Russia, report prisoner abuse?

It’s an invitation to trade. Trades have been done many times in the past, but the TASS mention suggests they want to expedite.

Who have we got? Maria Butina, comes to mind.

How China tries to Hack Intel9, Consider Huawei

Some readers in undecided countries may require visceral evidence of the Huawei hazard. While hacking a website is old news, China is a  corporate state where hacking is a tool generally employed. The hacks documented below have limited effect, because, with the exception noted by Bloomberg, China has not infiltrated U.S. server infrastructure at the hardware level. Quoting (Bloomberg) New Evidence of Hacked Supermicro Hardware Found in U.S. Telecom,

A major U.S. telecommunications company discovered manipulated hardware from Super Micro Computer Inc. in its network and removed it in August, fresh evidence of tampering in China of critical technology components bound for the U.S., according to a security expert working…

There are many ways to hack a website. Since the security of commercial servers is professionally maintained, the softer target is the client software hosted on a server, as exhibited below. It originated today from IP, which by reverse-DNS lookup, resolves to “CHINA UNICOM China169 Backbone, Beijing.” Although there are many kinds of attacks, this typifies  the thousands of occasions in the website log  of hacking attempts.

China hackers of Intel9 showed little interest in geopolitics. The intensity of attacks seen by Intel9 spiked in reaction to technical content. Conversely, Russian interest correlates more with their refined approach to HUMINT.

Each line below represents an attempt, this morning, to access a nonpublic file at the core of a WordPress installation. The location of the file is on the left. The result code, “404” indicates that the  attacker failed to access the file.

//x.php www.intel9.us                                      404             05-21-19 11:56 am
//lx.php www.intel9.us                                    404              05-21-19 11:56 am
//plus/mybak.php www.intel9.us               404             05-21-19 11:56 am
//data/cache/flye.php www.intel9.us      404             05-21-19 11:56 am
//plus/read.php www.intel9.us                   404              05-21-19 11:56 am
//plus/lucas.php www.intel9.us                  404             05-21-19 11:55 am
//data/cache/asd.php www.intel9.us       404             05-21-19 11:55 am
//plus/laobiao.php www.intel9.us             404             05-21-19 11:55 am
//fdgq.php www.intel9.us                               404             05-21-19 11:55 am
//Config_Shell.php www.intel9.us              404            05-21-19 11:55 am

The attacks failed, in large part because China has not, at least on a  large scale, infiltrated server hardware. Such infiltration embodies the Huawei threat.

Reuters: Insurer says Iran’s Guards likely to have organized tanker attacks

(Reuters) Exclusive: Insurer says Iran’s Guards likely to have organized tanker attacks. Quoting,

– The similarity of shrapnel found on the Norwegian tanker to shrapnel from drone boats used off Yemen by Houthis, even though the craft previously used by the Houthis were surface boats rather than the underwater drones likely to have been deployed in Fujairah.

This is an attractive idea.  The insurer, Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual War Risks Insurance Association, may have noticed a lot of boat-building material, such as fiberglass; the glass fibers resist vaporization. A limpet mine would leave very little alien material, as it is a small charge in a simple package that gains destructive power from intimate contact with the hull.

The choice of attribution is puzzling: “Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are “highly likely” to have facilitated…” as  opposed to “IRGC are likely to be responsible…”

Iran has provided the Houthis with weapons of this kind. But the eastern border of Yemen, which is starkly empty of habitation, is 1600 miles by sea from Fujairah. The nearest port, Al Mukalia, is 2160 miles, but it’s under UAE control.

The Houthis don’t need a port to mount the attacks. They could have shoved off from a beach, and  slowly motored their way 1600 miles. But the choice to label the IRGC as the enabler, as opposed to the attacker, appears to be an unsupported complication.

Factoring in the Houthis may be supported by other intelligence that cannot be revealed.  But some technical collections may be circumvented by Iranian fall-backs to primitive forms of communication, and use of deception games.

The sophistication of Iran  implies that a complex deception game, artificially involving Houthis, cannot be ruled out.



U.S. Hypersonic Strategies Part 3

You played the board game, which demonstrated an odd fact. By making random sideways movements, the red checker “evaded”  your black checker, which you attempted to guide with your purposeful hand. How could the brainless strategy of the red checker outwit your intelligent black checker?

There will be no math in this post, which continues to emphasize accessibility to the audience. It must remain rough, since the performance figures for Russian and Chinese hypersonic vehicles are not available to open source.  I’m hesitant to introduce the concepts of kinetic and potential energy. There are some interesting twists that go a little beyond freshman physics.

The game imitates the situation of the First Gulf War, when Patriot PAC-2 missiles failed to intercept — or failed to destroy, Iraqi Scud missiles that spontaneously disintegrated into pieces, tumbling through the atmosphere in complex paths. It was  noticed that  interception and destruction are practical distinctions, with much damage caused by still-incendiary boosters landing on soft targets, even if the warheads did not detonate.

The above is offered partly as a lesson in confusion. It includes issues that are barely related to intercepting hypersonic vehicles. Confusion typifies the subject, because missile defense is not one problem. It consists of at least four problem-regimes, some separated by mere seconds, as the aggressor missile transitions from one regime to the next. Each requires a different counter-weapon. These regimes were understood to be constants of the problem, because in the formative period of ABM theory,  only two kinds of missiles were subject to strategic consideration: ballistic, and cruise. The ability of subsonic cruise missiles to evade, even in the current day, could have been a show-stopper, but imagination has no limits. Hence, Star Wars.

The problem  was based on a missile that is thrown like a stone. After a few minutes of powered flight, the missile is going about 15000 miles/hour, arching over the atmosphere with no opportunity to change direction. Above the atmosphere, the warhead separates from the booster, and proceeds like a thrown stone to the target.  At the cost of some additional weight and complexity, the simple warhead can be replaced by a steerable “bus”, which makes modest adjustments in speed and direction to drop off its passengers, MIRVs, (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles).

Each MIRV is a thin cone, designed to withstand the incredible heat of reentry, with small rockets, “thrusters”, to keep the pointy end forward.  In fact, a MIRV vehicle could be steered a little when it descends far enough into the atmosphere, but it wasn’t thought worthwhile, as it would add weight. As early as 1963, a  U.S.  experiment with a surplus Thor warhead showed that steering is quite feasible.

The ability of a reentry vehicle to convert forward speed into sideways movement is critical to the problem. When the MIRVs, or MIRVs attached to the bus, are above the atmosphere, they proceed like stones. When they enter the upper atmosphere, the path becomes a little complicated. This is why it’s preferable to intercept a warhead in the vacuum of space.

You may note with pride that the ancestral hypersonic vehicle, the source of current frustration, was an American innovation, the Pershing II. It was designed to fly low, in a “flat trajectory”, with a single programmed “jink” as it entered the atmosphere.  Modern hypersonic vehicles greatly extend this idea, replacing predictable flight with the unpredictable.

The  problem of ballistic flight resembles the bull and the matador. The bull has more energy, the matador has more agility. The matador dodges the bull, whereas the interceptor gets in front of the bull, but otherwise, the analogy is strong. But what if the bull has the agility of the matador, as well as its speed?

The buzzword “hypersonic” is a detour to understanding. Speed is an issue in some cases, such as anti-ship, but a hypersonic missile  is slower than an ICBM. To note that a hypersonic missile “flies through the atmosphere” doesn’t quite nail it. So let’s nail.

The antimissile, as it exists today, launches a payload, the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle.  The EKV does not “fly in air” With very small, precise rockets, it places itself with extreme precision in the path of the red checker. Like  the matador, the EKV has no forward energy of its own, but  agility of lateral movement. In the vacuum of space, the MIRV “red checker” proceeds unalterably to its doom.

A strategic hypersonic warhead/missile has energy of forward motion. Flying  in the atmosphere, it is designed to have “lift”.  By banking, it converts a significant part of forward energy into sideways motion.  An airplane does this more efficiently, but the hypersonic missile is going very fast, so it has much more to start with. This forward energy is like a “battery” that the missile can drain to make changes in direction. It obtains a large initial velocity from a  booster stage. The Russian Avangard has an integral scramjet that allows it to exceed the performance of the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.

The rocket equation is cruel to the EKV.  Take a look at a picture of one of the EKV designs. There are other pictures around the web you may wish to examine. The weight of the EKV is variously stated to be 120 or 140 pounds. It appears to have two propellant tanks  and two oxidizer tanks. The amount is not critical to the argument, so assume  50 pounds total, of which 15 is propellant.  This is not a lot of energy; it’s much less than a car tank of gas. It can’t match the amount of forward energy the adversary can convert into sideways motion.

As originally conceived, it didn’t have to. The EKV has a very high forward velocity/energy, provided by the Ground Based Interceptor. But it cannot convert any of that forward energy into lateral movement. It is specialized to operate in space, and is protected by a shroud until it gets there. Lateral movement must come from the amount of fuel you could fit in a Jerry can. And unlike the Avangard ramjet, it cannot escape the rocket equation.

Takeaway: The bright child of U.S. antimissile efforts, and hypersonic adversary missiles, are so different, never the twain shall meet.

Next: Conceptual Thinking.



Checklist for Middle East Foreign Policy; When to Hold & When to Fold

(CNN) Trump’s irritation with top aides grows over Iran strategy.

Here’s a Sun-Tzu style list of aphorisms. Something to to chew on:

  • To think one correctly identifies the adversary’s most important self-interest, and that it will act according to that interest, is usually wrong. (Sanctions.)
  • Don’t blow up a political  system, however odious, unless you have the means and will to replace it. Consider: Responses to Syrian use of poison gas, overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
  • Any power, no matter how strong, needs allies.
  • Make your alliances before the battle.
  • An untested ally is likely to be imaginary.
  • Keep your friends closer than your enemies (Yes, the opposite.)  Cherish them.
  • Always offer the adversary a compromise to your absolute demands. He might take it.
  • Distinguish between the evil you can live with, and what you cannot abide.
  • Act as if you are signing the deployment orders and condolence letters.
  • Don’t start wars. Finish them.

You got to know when to hold them know when to fold them.


U.S. pulls staff from Iraq, says Iran gave ‘blessing’ for tanker attacks

(Reuters) U.S. pulls staff from Iraq, says Iran gave ‘blessing’ for tanker attacks. Quoting,

A U.S. government source said American security experts believe Iran gave its “blessing” to tanker attacks…The source said the United States believes Iran’s role was one of actively encouraging militants but indicated the United States does not now have evidence that Iranian personnel played any direct operational role.

This quote, as meaningless as a diplomatic handshake photo,

Iran’s Foreign Ministry has called the tanker attacks “worrisome and dreadful” and called for an investigation.

suggests in context that  that Iran may not have been  fully complicit in the attacks, that they might have been the inspiration of a faction. While technical collections can rule out sophisticated underwater attacks, reliable assessment of the extent of Iran’s involvement requires HUMINT, which may have been used. Technical intelligence works best with an adversary using technology, but loses the race to the technological  bottom.  The Kremlin uses typewriters for the most secret communications.

There is another aspect of a society, not easily quantifiable, that is a source of my genial doubt. Iran’s society is highly structured. There are no free agents. An Iranian belongs to one or more groups, arrayed in hierarchies, with lateral connections.  This results in a unique situation of  multiple constituted governments, and centers of power that transcend the Western meanings of the terms.

In one of these hierarchies, the ultimate legitimization of power, even more than money, is found in the production of theological literature. The centrality of what we might call the impractical extends to the aesthetic domain in the form of poetry.  In the West, particularly after the Industrial Revolution, poetry  is viewed by “practical” people as the obfuscation of meaning in preference to some kind of spiritual truth.

This is an obstacle to figuring out what is going on. Iranian “idea production”, reaching Henry Ford levels, naturally obfuscates everything except for the cold facts of industry, such as how many centrifuges are spinning. It makes incomprehensible the  wanderings of the  bag-man, whose satchel may contain cash, quid-pro-quos, or brownie points.

The ability of societies to execute the underhanded has historically differed.  The Abwehr was terrible;  MI-6 was very good; the KGB the best before Mossad; the U.S. somewhere in between. The innate ability  comes from understanding the adversary on the very personal level, and an ideological passion for the work.  Hezbollah, Iran’s appendage in Lebanon , has been an active adversary  for many years. Those who have had the occasion to lose conclude they run with the best.

The  Shiite intelligence establishment, though loathing the West, understand us very well, enabling complex manipulations that may not be understood as such.  Quoting,

The attack on the tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, through which one fifth of the world’s oil consumption flows, appeared designed to test the resolve of the United States and its Sunni Muslim allies without triggering a war, analysts said.

A perfectly deniable attack does not serve well as a test. A provocation requires that you  know who provoked you. Perhaps the word  is what you have to give the press. As an sole hypothesis,  it  is a fruitless simplification, denying  all extrapolations save  “Will they let us get away with this?” The attacks were a manipulation,  part of a strategy. Can we get  elements of that strategy from the event? Consider this short list:

  • The start of an attrition that denies the adversary a symmetric response.
  • Exploit political division in the West.
  • Provoke escalation, a subject in itself.
  • A step of desensitization to conflict, elevating the threshold of response.
  • Inspire the militias.
  • A dry warning: This is what it’s going to cost us.
  • An opportunistic approach, varying with developments. To taste a TV dinner, you have to thaw it first.
  • A test. Of all the possibilities, the choice not to respond  to a test encourages more and worse.

All of these may be under consideration by the intelligence community. Letting Iran partially off the hook is justifiable spin, provided it doesn’t actually imply simplified thinking. To assert that Iran is responsible for attacks where deniability cannot be publicly, or even privately refuted, risks appearance of impotence.

Unless one seriously respects the crocodile tears of Iran’s foreign ministry, the challenge to the intelligence community is now to deliver the goods in actionable form.




Iran Fires the First Shot in New Tanker War

Edit, 5/14/2019. Since some readers may view this blog as a compilation,  Reuters) U.S. believes Iran proxies may be behind tanker attacks, official says. Quoting,

U.S. national security agencies believe proxies sympathetic to or working for Iran may have attacked four tankers off the United Arab Emirates rather than Iranian forces themselves, a U.S. official familiar with the latest U.S. assessments said on Tuesday.

This may derive from counting the Gadhirs in their berths, and other kinds of technical collection.

If the tankers were stationary, a dhow run by a proxy is very feasible. But since a dhow is  typically a slow boat, only a little faster than a tanker, precise navigation and some luck would be required for a moving interception. Would a modern hull planer be noticed?

The original post:

(Reuters) UAE says four vessels subjected to ‘sabotage’ near Fujairah port.

(CNN) Two Saudi oil tankers damaged in ‘sabotage attack,’ says press agency.

Quoting from US official: Iran has moved missiles to Persian Gulf,

Is there something more we can tease out of open source? A template based on the recent past gives insight into Iranian tactics, which emphasize surprise, asymmetry, and deniability.

There is indication that at least some of the attacks occurred while the tankers were under way. The locations, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, are convenient to Iran’s main naval facility, Bandar-e-Abbas. (Global Security) Yono Class / Ghadir Class Midget Submarine has plenty of detail.

What weapon was used? An unconventional answer is almost anticipated. While Iran’s engineering is third-rate, their tactical ingenuity is first-rate.

Supertankers are very hard to sink. Mine hits have occurred unnoticed by the crews. The damage level of these attacks does not exclude the typical weapons of naval warfare, mines and torpedoes. But strict deniability requires that the weapon contain little more than the explosive charge, and a little  miscellaneous steel. More than that leaves a residue that could be fished out for forensics.

For a possible solution, we must reach back to the U.S. Civil War, when the modern self-propelled “torpedo” did not yet exist. The spar torpedo was an explosive charge on the end of a stick.  It was rammed into the target ship, and exploded not instantly, but shortly after the attackers got away. Just before World War II, the Brits invented the limpet mine, which holds fast to the target with a magnet.

These are examples of weapons which leave behind little in the form of traceable scrap metal. Both are historically associated with midget (or littoral) submarines such as the Ghadir.

The following example stems from no particular insight, but is offered as an example of almost endless variations of improvisation.  The Ghadir can also carry an underwater diver delivery vehicle. Though tankers move slowly, a diver still risks getting caught in the wake of the tanker.  (At 15 knots, a 1000 foot tanker passes a fixed point in about 40 seconds.) An Iranian choice might be to tether the divers, or divers /vehicle, to the submarine with a rope, and go into reverse after the attachment. Or they could have put a limpet on the end of a stick.

Iran’s strategy now has another data point, suggesting that the missiles-on-dhows are reserved for reaction to overt retaliation by the U.S.   Yet Iran’s loss of oil revenue is so severe that only very significant setbacks might deter their strategy, which now appears to be grinding, deniable attrition. Iran assumes that most  U.S. weaponry is  not suited for deniable use.

Yet the cupboard is not entirely bare.




Iranian Missile Movements; Open Source Versus Technical Intelligence

(NBC) U.S. officials: Iran official OK’d attacks on American military. Quoting,

One U.S. official said Iran usually conceals the missiles and components when delivering them to the Houthis. These missiles are visible to overhead surveillance, leading to concerns Iran could attempt to launch missiles from the dhows. There are some indications they have mobile launchers on board, as well, one of the officials said.

Technical collections of the intelligence community are usually more informative than open source, except in one way, the gauging of intentions. But this quote is good for intentions:

…the Iranian regime has told some of its proxy forces and surrogates that they can now go after American military personnel and assets in the region, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence.

The  dhows may contain onboard launchers, as opposed to launchers for shore deployment. The IRGC have an operational suicide doctrine, which differs only in philosophy from the suicides of Islamic terror.  It is justified as a practical weapon, to be used when there is no alternative. In  challenge to U.S. naval power, this is now the case. Unlike the land launches by Houthis against the USS Mason, where the attackers could vanish, a dhow launch is a form of suicide.

So the argument of US official: Iran has moved missiles to Persian Gulf, based on deniability, is  compromised. It will become irrelevant if a missile is actually launched from a dhow. It would define the divide between Iran’s secular and religious components as more stark than even the imprisonment of Rouhani’s brother implies.

That argument also assumes the Iranians want a demonstration of success to motivate their suicide crews. The attack on the Mason did not provide this, because the attack did not reach the point of saturation of the Mason’s radar. But a close-in suicide attack, engaging the Phalanx CIWS system, has a  chance of causing at least minor ship damage. A swarm attack could do more.


“The intelligence is real,” said a senior Democratic congressional official briefed on the intelligence, “but the response seems wildly out of proportion.”

The deployment of a carrier strike group is appropriate. If the dhow threat becomes actual versus potential, as indicated by a missile launch, the best defense/deterrent is rapid elimination of the dhows.

The threat against U.S. land forces is not so easily countered. The strength and composition of these forces is not intended for large engagements. The isolated locations of U.S. forces within Iraq, combined with air power, provide some protection against concentration of opposing forces. But  freedom of movement, in small units in counterinsurgency operations, would go to zero.

The Kurd Referendum; Implications for U.S. Policy offers a prediction, from September 29, 2017, that centers on the Kurds. They may yet play a role; read down. But there are so many ways the cake can crumble:

…Unless Brinton’s sequence can be averted, the U.S. position will become untenable. The nature of extremists could make resolution impossible. The curtain on this conflict rises perhaps a year, or a bit more, from now.

Quoting from Trump wants U.S. military in Iraq to ‘watch Iran’: CBS interview,

The far west locations of the bases provide some insulation against sectarian strife. But how Iraq will fall apart is as hard as predicting how a goblet will shatter when dropped.

    • For a clean break into a few large pieces, the bases are an asset.
    • Bases are useful if there is enough coherence to request U.S. assistance, but the U.S. response would have to be massive.
    • With total shattering, and  many sharp pieces, the bases become “Mortarvilles”, exposed to grinding attrition.

Plan to Defeat ISIS Part 3; 1000 Troops to Kuwait; New Doctrine, outlines a doctrine that provides an alternative with some functionality in a non permissive environment. Quoting,

…None of these had geopolitical goals of the type pursued by the U.S. All of the above are characterized by the temporary seizure of territory. They were ephemeral. They offer suggestions as to how the U.S. can project power into a region with weak or nonexistent states, and hostile non-state forces:

    • Deploy very, very quickly.
    • Accomplish the objective, but without the usual finality or thoroughness.
    • Get out before non-state forces can react to the presence.

This “Doctrine of Ephemeral Deployment.” is not new. Von Clausewitz thought of it some time between 1816 and 1830.

While the U.S. military has the unique ability to maintain a presence in hostile environments, such as Afghanistan, it may be in circumstances that prohibit achievement of  foreign policy goals. If continued presence in Iraq is required, it may be necessary to dispose of constraints that stem from the concept of Iraq as a state in political balance:

  • Reluctance to support Kurdish autonomy, if not independence.
  • The idea that Sunni nationalism is in all forms a bad thing.

The current dilemma provokes an idea to be explored in the games of counterfactual history: U.S. foreign policy goals are too rigidly guided by strategic doctrine, to the neglect of opportunity and practicality.